NEW YORK – In one sequence, Aron Baynes showed why he could become a valuable component of the Spurs’ frontcourt rotation. In the fourth quarter against the Nets last week and with Mason Plumlee trailing him, Baynes ran under the basket and set a screen at the right elbow for Danny Green. Green took one dribble and dropped a bounce pass to a Baynes, who caught the ball, set his feet and exploded for a one-handed dunk over three defenders.
One simple screen-and-roll sequence with a flashy finish won’t earn Baynes major minutes. But the traits he showcased on that play can help San Antonio this season.
Baynes, 28, is enjoying the best stretch of his career to date while helping the Spurs compensate for the absence of Tiago Splitter, who is dealing with a calf injury. Baynes tallied double-figure points in six of eight games last month, capped by a career-high 15-point showing in a win over the 76ers last Monday.
It wasn’t so long ago that it seemed uncertain whether Baynes would even play in the NBA this season. The Spurs reportedly extended him a qualifying offer after he played 53 games with the team last year, but Baynes reportedly sought a potential deal overseas before eventually re-signing in late September for reportedly one year, $2.1 million. During negotiations, he averaged team highs in points (16.8) and rebounds (7) over six games with Australia in the FIBA Basketball World Cup.
His strong play in Spain has translated to an encouraging start with San Antonio this season. Through 20 games, Baynes is averaging career highs in points (7.2), rebounds (4.9) and field goal percentage (59.8 percent). His Player Efficiency Rating has jumped by nearly seven points (to 16.3) and his true shooting percentage has increased more than 15 percentage points. Most notably, with Splitter out, Baynes is averaging 17 minutes per game, up from 9.3 last season.
“I’m just trying to go out there and help the team best I can with the minutes that I get,” Baynes said. “Every minute I play with the guys out there, I’m feeling more comfortable and I learn more about how they want to play.”
At 6-foot-10, 260 pounds, Baynes is simply – as coach Gregg Popovich said Wednesday -- “big.” His size and strength allows him to clear space and establish position on the low block, and it would behoove any defender to be mindful of when he’s setting a screen in their vicinity.
“When you get hit by a screen from Baynsie, you don’t even have to see him coming, or you don’t have to see him at all, but you know it was him,” Spurs point guard Cory Joseph said of Baynes.
One can find value in toughness and size while also acknowledging a lack of skill and finesse. Offensively, Baynes doesn’t have floor-stretching capability and does the majority of his work near the basket. This season he’s attempted only one three (it went in) and 68.6 percent of his field goal attempts have come from within three feet of the rim – up from 46 percent in 2013-14. Some of those shots have come with Baynes serving as the roll man on a pick and roll. The big man is making more of those chances this season than he did a year ago, averaging 1.11 points per possession, a slight uptick from a season ago, according to Synergy Sports data.
The picture is mixed on defense, where Baynes’ lack of quickness and agility limits the range of opponents he can effectively cover. The Spurs have been nearly three points per 100 possessions worse defensively during Baynes’ floor time this season, and despite his ability to counter opponents with his size and heft, Baynes is not a particularly effective rim protector. This James Harden facial serves as solid anecdotal evidence, but consider that Baynes has blocked only 1 percent of two-point field goal attempts while he’s been on the floor and has allowed opponents to shoot 57.9 percent at the rim, according to NBA.com.
It remains to be seen how much Baynes will play when Splitter returns to the lineup. His offensive skills are limited, he’s vulnerable against quicker, more skilled big men on defense, he commits a lot of fouls and is susceptible to occasional lapses. Still, Baynes has provided meaningful minutes for a team that has lacked one of its key big men for virtually the entire season.
“He’s a force out there,” Joseph said. “He does so many things well – rebounds well, he’s been shooting it really well, he’s been playing with a lot of confidence and he’s been playing like we’re just in practice or something, so that’s good. He’s playing more free, he’s not thinking as much, so he’s doing a great job."